On conducting the work for Opera Holland Park this month
Exploring the background to Così has been a fascinating journey of discovery in preparing for the performances I am conducting for Opera Holland Park. Equally fascinating is how this opera is so relevant to our times, containing seeds of modernism in terms of its approach to the music and drama: something this opera is rarely associated with.
We often appreciate Così fan tutte on a surface level and are used to listening to Mozart as background music, on adverts, television, as aural wallpaper. It is easy to overlook the richness and depth of the music. This is one of the challenges of interpreting Così: understanding the concepts behind the music and text and how these are transmitted to the details of the music drama. These are key to unraveling the many layers of meaning – some of which are not always obvious and sometimes the music can mean two conflicting things.
Mozart’s Così fan tutte was written during the final years of the Josephinian Enlightenment, against the backdrop of the French Revolution: unsettling times which chime with the libretto and music.
The Enlightenment offered liberalisation of thought, emphasising reason over superstition, unlocking new creative possibilities. This ethos is neatly summarised in the attitude of Don Alfonso – an aristocrat and philosopher – who subjects his unknowing victims Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Despina, and the naïve and trusting Ferrando and Guglielmo to an experiment in human relationships, which Don Alfonso concocts to prove ‘Cosi fan tutte’ – ‘They are all like that’.
Rubbing alongside this rationality is the Cult of Sensibility that is written into the libretto and the music. Fuelled by the public’s appetite for the novel – the Cult of Sensibility was about feeling and emotions guiding the individual: the heart ruling the head.
There are many literary examples including Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), but perhaps the most relevant to Così is Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), which can be read as a love story or as a totally ironic send-up. This duality is at work in Mozart’s music, which fulfils the dramatic requirements but at the same time is ironic – it can be taken at face value or have the opposite meaning to the way it sounds.
An example of this is Don Alfonso’s ‘Vorrei dir’ in which he prolongs the torment of Fiordiligi and Dorabella concerning the fate of their lovers. On the surface the minor key, mournful violas - divisi to give extra richness to the texture - and the skittish accompaniment in the violins points to a man who is genuinely distressed. In a different context this would be the case, but here the audience know he is faking it. The music has a double meaning.
The libretto deliberately draws attention to other literature, both contemporary to the opera and from earlier centuries, highlighting the artificiality of the plot. Don Alfonso’s accompanied recitative ‘Nel mare solca’ quotes lines from a play by Sannazaro’s L’Arcadia of 1504. Mozart’s music evokes the early Baroque or Renaissance with static harmony and clichés for the ‘wild wind’ that would have been common in earlier opera. The music is ironic and drawing attention to the antiquated text.
Mozart even uses operatic convention as a form of parody. Fiordiligi’s ‘Come Scoglio’ appears to be an Opera Seria aria but the text and the music undermine this. The text plays to sentimentality and cliché, with double meaning in the over-sentimental music and deliberately wide leaps that draw attention to the artificiality or contrived nature of the situation.
The Enlightenment ideas of symmetry and balance that underpin the Classical period are very present in Così, making it difficult to cut numbers. For example, the duet in Act I between Guglielmo and Ferrando balances that of the complementary duet between Fiordiligi and Dorabella. This is often cut. The work has suffered a long tradition of cuts and when it was first performed in London in 1811, it was with a different libretto. This and changes in taste have led to the opera being misunderstood. Even Mozart’s wife did not feel that the libretto was up to Mozart’s ‘sublime’ standards. But it is precisely Mozart’s reaction to this original libretto (most operas of the period were based on pre-existing plays of stories) that makes Così so special and has resonance with modern collaborations between librettist and composer: for example Britten and Auden’s Paul Bunyan and Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole. Mozart understands what is behind the text and translates this into music. There is a sense of a working dynamic between librettist and composer to the extent that Mozart changes some of the libretto to heighten the dramatic effect: when Despina disguises herself as a notary Mozart alters the Latin to make the disguise sound even more false because Despina as a maid would not have studied Latin.
The often opaque text makes it important to bring as much variety of colour and nuance to the score to underpin the intricacies and double meanings. Mozart does this brilliantly by constantly re-orchestrating the material. However, it is easy to gloss over the subtle nuances, which are written into the music. Unlike the music of the 20th and 21st centuries they are not always made explicit with dynamics, expressive markings and articulation but they are implicit in the voice leading, orchestration and harmony and need to be teased out.
How does this relate to the music of our time? The idea of irony in music was new in the 18th century. Così displays this on many levels and has rarely been appreciated for this. Musical irony was to really come into its own in the 20th and 21st centuries and has been used to great effect by many leading composers. From a practical level, the precision required to make Così come alive is so relevant to music from our own time. Every detail in the score needs to be clear if this music is to sound at its brilliant best. One area that is often overlooked is to phrase off the cadences so that the music does not become stodgy with over-emphasised bar lines. There needs to be a sense of dialogue between stage and pit – Così is chamber music with instruments and singers acting and reacting to each other. Also, Mozart is not just about melody – it is often the accompaniment or the middle ground that provides the characterisation, the second violins, the violas (which are often divisi like in a string quintet), second trumpet, second clarinet, second horn, timpani. These details need to be teased out to make Così sound as dramatic as possible. Having performed and conducted a lot of contemporary repertoire, Così provides many lessons – not only do performers of contemporary works have to come to an understanding of the back-story but they also have to be creative and imaginative with the musical parameters to make the music engaging.
The musical details need to be exaggerated to create a meaningful interpretation. I have been fortunate to work with a wonderful director, Harry Fehr and designer, who have given the same attention to detail with the staging. It is a very exciting thing to be involved in.
Time and reflection are crucial to developing this depth in Così: it is so much more than the ‘rom-com’ that it is often presented as.
Opera Holland Park’s Così fan tutte opens on June 8 with subsequent performances on June 13, 16, 18, 21, 24 (2pm matinee), 28, and July 4, 7 at 7.15pm. For more information, visit: operahollandpark.com
Conductor and violinist Thomas Kemp is music director of Chamber Domaine, specialising in 20th and 21st century repertoire, and artistic director of the Music@Malling festival. He has recorded for ASV, Blackbox, Landor and Sony Classics, and is conducting a series of contemporary music recordings for Resonus Classics. This summer he makes his operatic debut for Opera Holland Park, conducting the City of London Sinfonia in Mozart’s Così fan tutte.